Horribe Histories is a CBBC comedy series in which some of the UK's top comedy talent joins forces to introduce children to gruesome events and ghastly characters from British and international history. Jim Howick, Simon Farnaby, Ben Willbond, Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas and Laurence Rickard are among those bringing to life strange facts, rotten rulers, gory battles, crazy inventions and weird and wonderful moments from the past, in this series based on the books written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Martin Brown.
The Making Of Horrible Histories
Bringing Horrible Histories to life for the small screen was no small feat for producer Caroline Norris. Despite working on a string of successful comedy shows including Armstrong & Miller and Dead Ringers, Caroline felt a huge weight of responsibility on this project to both the fans and the author of the much-loved series of books.
"It was incredibly daunting," admits Caroline. "The books are so fantastic, and we wanted to make a series that brought them to life and didn't disappoint their fans, which is no small task! We also wanted Terry Deary to be happy with the end result and feel it was an accurate reflection of his style.
"We had shows like Monty Python, Do Not Adjust Your Set and Blackadder in mind, and our aim was to make a child-friendly series that people would think could be prime time because that's what both the books and the audience deserved."
Luckily, author Terry Deary is delighted with the end result. He says: "I had initial reservations about the series. But the BBC got the best producers and the best technicians that they could find and then got the best actors. They then did something very different which was treating it like an adult sketch show - which is very brave and very cutting edge. And I'm absolutely thrilled with it. My books were the inspiration but the BBC and Lion Television deserve huge credit for what they have done."
Staying true to the spirit of the books, getting the factual information across in an appealing way was another challenge for Caroline and her team.
"We thought the material would have to be comedy first and facts second but once the writing got underway we discovered that truth turned out to be funnier than fiction so we decided to keep the sketches as factually accurate as possible," explains Caroline. "We also wanted to include as much physical comedy as possible, and thought goo and poo and falling over couldn't fail!"
Caroline also decided that a way to make the material accessible on screen was by using already familiar TV formats and songs. She says: "I wanted to use TV formats as an easy way in, so there was something children could instantly recognise like Ready Steady Feast and Historical Hospital and they proved to be great fun. I'm also a big fan of the comedy song and thought music would be a great way of getting potentially drier historical information across in an accessible way.
"I thought that the Four Georges ballad would be an entertaining way to get across what the Georgian period actually meant and when I walked in on rehearsal, I couldn't stop laughing, so it was obviously going to be a big hit!"
A staggering amount of British comedy talent has been attracted to Horrible Histories both on and off-screen including Meera Syal (pictured right), Sarah Hadland, Steve Punt and Ben Ward. Caroline explains that there wasn't much convincing needed to get people involved.
"I'd worked with lots of great writers on shows like Armstrong & Miller and Dead Ringers, and I knew people like Steve Punt were interested in history and also had kids, so were likely to know the books.
"The books provided a great draw, and the fact that myself and (fellow producer) Dominic Brigstocke were involved meant we were able to use our contacts. Once the word was out, there wasn't much convincing to be done - several people came to me and asked to be involved!"
"With regard to on-screen talent, we were absolutely delighted that Sarah Hadland agreed to do the show - she went from working on the new Bond film to us! It was incredibly difficult to decide on the right combination of actors for the team, but in the end I couldn't have hoped for a better cast. They were all absolutely fantastic and brought the sketches to life in the most hilarious way."
Talking of acting performances, author Terry Deary also makes cameos throughout the series. He explains how it came about: "As well as being a writer, I'm also a professional actor and I said that I would love to be able to appear in the series too. But as the illustrator of the books Martin Brown pointed out, 'by the time most people in history got to your age they were dead!'. So I pop up in unusual places - as a soldier in a Trojan horse, as a Roman emperor and as a grave robber!"
Caroline hopes children will be inspired to learn a little more about history when they see the show. She says: "I've learned an enormous amount working on Horrible Histories. I can now look at Georgian houses with their windows bricked up and know why they're like that, and understand the basics of some Greek myths despite never having learned them at school. History brings the world alive and it's really important that people feel connected by it and not daunted. I hope Horrible Histories makes people curious to find out more about all eras and helps them to realise how funny, nasty, amazing, silly and gory the past was!"
Terry Deary agrees with the importance of people engaging with the past he says: "For me history is all about people. To understand why people behave they way they do is to understand why they behaved the way they did. If you can understand the way people were before you can measure yourself against them and then you'll be happy."
Caroline knew she had a hit on her hands with Horrible Histories when children started clamouring to visit the set and the actors started getting mobbed by kids on the street!
She says: "We were so proud of what we achieved with the first series but we didn't realise quite what a huge impact the show had had until we started filming series two and so many children wanted to come down and watch!
"It's brilliant to feel that we've made a show that so many people connect with. I keep getting txts from people saying they've heard children singing the songs on train platforms, or from the actors saying they've been recognised in the streets. It's all genuinely exciting and inspiring."
With series one setting such a high standard, the team knew they had to pull out all the stops to keep the content fresh and inspiring for the second outing.
Caroline explains: "Generally, we took our favourite bits from the first series and tried to do more with them as well as aiming to introduce lots of new ideas that we hope will become favourites. We learned so much about what worked well from the first series and had enormous fun building from that.
"With Stupid Deaths, we try to make it more of a Simon Cowell-style talent show which has proved to be great fun and we also had much bigger ambitions with the songs, which were such a hit in the first series. Spartan School Musical is a very ambitious song and dance number and my other favourite features Charles II rapping in the Charles II Song!"
Adds Terry Deary: "The creative team have studied the feedback carefully and they have dropped some ideas that didn't work so well and expanded those that did. This is such a fresh take on the Horrible Histories concept and it has been done brilliantly by a massively talented team of sketch writers and young actors. The programmes are funnier than the books but the books are able to tackle the more serious issues that young people need to confront so books and television complement one other in an inspired way."
As before, a big challenge for the team is making a show that's funny while staying historically accurate: "Obviously Terry is closely involved with the show, and we have an assistant producer called Greg Jenner who is responsible for making sure we don't make jokes at the expense of historical truth," explains Caroline. "Greg seems to know everything there is to know about history, and keeps us on the straight and narrow as far as the latest theory goes. We're not allowed to do things that are funny unless they can also be defended from a factual point of view, which can be annoying when you've come up with a great joke."
So what are the moments that Caroline and her team will remember from Horrible Histories II? "We had a llama on set for the Incan sketches, and it just wouldn't behave," reminisces Caroline. "Whenever anyone mentioned sacrificing a llama, it walked off set and no-one could stop it. It also had a tendency to lie down at the crucial moment, or it would stand in the background and make a weird noise. I guess that's the noise llamas make but it sounded like someone crying under a table!"
"Another brilliant moment was being allowed to film our Charles II song at Hampton Court. They usually only allow documentaries there, but we had Charles II and his be-wigged cronies dancing on tables and singing an Eminem-style rap. The PR people at Hampton Court said they'd never seen anything like it before!"
The third series covered every era from the Stone Age to the First World War, with new additions including terrible tales from the Angry Aztecs, the Fabulous French and the Nasty Knights.
Death returns to quiz the recently deceased on the manner of their demise in Stupid Deaths, Shouty Man promotes a range of goods from across the ages and more patients are treated for bizarre cures from the Historical Paramedics.
No series of Horrible Histories would be complete without a selection of historical songs and this series the show surpassed itself with a devilishly difficult ditty which features every Monarch from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II.
Series producer Caroline Norris says: "Our viewers never fail to surprise us with their passion for the show; they pick up the lyrics so quickly that we thought we would try to make things a little more difficult for them with our Ruthless Rulers song."
"Our composer Richie Webb has done an amazing job and I think it will take a while for fans of the show to learn it as we have purposely made it very tricky."
Other featured tunes include an Adam Ant style homage to Dick Turpin, and songs about suffragettes and bad emperors.
In the fourth series viewers can find out how historical figures such as Dick Whittington and Robert the Bruce get on pitching movies about their life story, and which Historical Apprentice teams will find out they're fired. There are also more magnificent musical interludes including Victoria and Albert's love ballad, Charles Darwin with a Bowie-esque rock tune, and a new Battle of Britain RAF Pilots boy band.
This series also features guest appearances from Chris Addison, and League of Gentlemen stars Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
As it started airing, it soon transpired that the fifth series of the show was to the show's last... with the cast moving onto other projects, including Bill and Yonderland. However, they went out with a bang: